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Smart Home

HomePod delay clouds Apple's smart speaker future

Apple is ceding the key holiday shopping season to Google and Amazon.

CNET

Apple has given Amazon and Google an even bigger head start in the race to get smart speakers into your home.

The tech titan said Friday it's pushed back the launch of its first smart speaker, the HomePod, from sometime in December (no specific date was ever offered) to "early 2018" so it can finish work on the device.

Missing the critical holiday season is a blow to Apple. The company loses the opportunity to sell the HomePod to shoppers in a more buying mood and help it break into the young smart speaker market. The delay comes as both Amazon and Google roll out aggressive discounts during Black Friday and beyond for their respective family of smart speakers, potentially cutting down on prospective HomePod customers. 

For consumers, it means one less choice, even if the $349 HomePod represents a much more expensive option than the Echo Dot or Google Home Mini, both about $50.

Apple is likely being careful since it can ill afford a slip-up in this market.

"The only thing worse than this delay is introducing it and selling under a million and making no dent in the market," said Michael R. Levin, of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. "That would be really embarrassing."

Apple declined to offer more information for this story beyond its statement on Friday.

So how much does this delay hurt Apple?

From a financial perspective, it's going to be a hiccup because Apple makes most of its money from its iPhone lineup. The HomePod fits as an ancillary business similar to the Apple Watch or AirPods, which aren't nearly as important.

The bigger concern is the loss of a key opportunity to get into your home. Apple is already late to this field, ceding ground to Amazon, Google and speaker makers like Sonos, Sony and Lenovo (many of which use Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant).

Amazon, which popularized the smart speaker category with the launch of its Echo in late 2014, has already sold 20 million smart speakers in the US, taking 73 percent of that market. Google, which launched the Google Home last year, takes up the other 27 percent, Consumer Intelligence Research Partners said this month.

If you're investing in one or a set of smart speakers from one company, you're less likely to mix and match brands.

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There's still hope for Apple, which is known for coming into an already developed market and quickly taking over, such as with the iPhone for smartphones or the Apple Watch for wearables. The company famously has a rabid fan base willing to buy many -- if not all -- of its products. If the HomePod ends up being successful anyway, no one will remember this monthslong delay.

Yet Amazon and Google have already shown up with second- and third-generation products, and started developing app ecosystems and partnerships with smart home equipment makers. The HomePod was a first step toward matching these efforts, and now catching up to competitors could be harder.

Apple also hasn't proven there's a sizable market for a high-priced smart speaker, with the most popular device in the field so far being the $50 Echo Dot. (The Google Home Max is even more expensive, at $399, and slated to go on sale next month.)

From a Siri perspective, this doesn't send a positive message either. Despite being the first major tech company with a consumer voice assistant back in 2011, Apple hasn't kept up with others in developing Siri, according to studies this year from Stone Temple and Adobe. The delay adds to the perception that Apple isn't prioritizing its digital assistant.

Siri, of course, is offering her support for the new product. If you ask the assistant when the HomePod is available, she'll respond: "Everything you need to know about HomePods is on Apple's website."

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